By Carol Symes, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
The later 12th century saw a proliferation of languages and contexts in which one could earn a living with pen or performance. Some of the pioneer singer-songwriters—such as troubadours (in Occitan), trouvères (in northern French), and the minnesingers, the “love-songster” of German lands—were noblemen or knights, but most were jobbing minstrels reliant on patronage and public presentations of their art.
Jehan Bodel and the Fabliau
In the cultural powerhouse of Arras, the jack-of-all-trades entertainers known as jongleurs formed their own professional guild. One of its leading members, Jehan Bodel, supplemented his income as clerk for the town government by writing a play, the Jeu de saint Nicolas or “Play of St. Nicholas”, which is the first known vernacular drama of medieval Europe; he also composed pastoral poetry and an epic about Charlemagne’s conquest of the Saxons.
Jehan Bodel was also the first known inventor of a new genre, the fabliau: a short verse story often featuring a canny trickster of the kind that flourished in urban milieus like Arras, and who is often foiled by someone even trickier.
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Impact of the Black Death
The generations of authors who survived the Black Death in the mid-14th century, or who grew up in the decades immediately following it, opened a new literary frontier characterized by intense observations of the world.
Giovanni Boccaccio, of Florence, is still best known for the Decameron—a collection of prose tales about sex, adventure, and trickery. He presents these stories as being told over a period of 10 days by and for a sophisticated party of young women and men who have taken up residence in a country villa in order to escape the ravages of the plague.
Boccaccio borrowed the outlines of many of these tales from earlier sources, especially the Old French fabliaux, but he couched them in a freely colloquial prose. Boccaccio used it to capture the foibles of human beings and their often-graphic exploits and escapist fantasies in a time of pandemic.
As you may have noticed, this book has been frequently invoked since the onset of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, and its introductory description of societal breakdown in the face of a public health crisis is quite spookily familiar.
Geoffrey Chaucer was among the first generation of authors writing in a form of English that can be understood by modern readers with relatively little effort.
His masterpiece, The Canterbury Tales, is also a collection of stories held together by a framing narrative. In this case, the stories are in verse and are told by a diverse array of people traveling together on a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket at Canterbury. Each character tells a story that is particularly illustrative of his or her own occupation and outlook on the world, forming a kaleidoscopic human comedy.
Despite his literary success, Chaucer continued to hold down a day-job as a customs clerk.
Christine de Pisan
Born in northern Italy and raised by a physician father who ensured that she received an excellent education, Christine de Pisan spent her adult life in France, where her husband was a member of the king’s household. When he died, the widowed Christine was left destitute by his debts and turned to writing to support herself and her children.
She mastered a wide variety of literary genres, including treatises on chivalry and warfare, which she dedicated to King Charles VI of France. She also wrote for a popular audience, and not just an audience of women. Her imaginative Book of the City of Ladies is an extended defense of the character, capacities, and history of women, designed to help women refute their male detractors.
One more female author deserves a special mention here—Margery Kempe, a close contemporary of Christine who lived in Norfolk, on England’s east coast. Margery was also a wife and mother until a personal crisis struck and turned her to the task of writing.
But in this case, the crisis was a spiritual one and Margery (while she was probably literate) was not able to write well enough to explain her beliefs or the postpartum depression, after some two dozen childbirths, that precipitated her search for a personal relationship with Jesus and the Virgin Mary. Writing about this became necessary because her new career as a wandering mystic, pilgrim, and proselytizer soon landed her in trouble with Church authorities.
Urged to compose a confession that would explain her decision to abandon her husband and take up a godly life, Margery chronicles not only her visions and extensive travels to Rome and the Holy Land, but also the difficulties she encountered when attempting to record her spiritual adventures in writing. In the end, it took Margery more than 20 years to find a willing and able (male) scribe.
Depending on Patrons
Unlike the clerics for whom authorship was an aspect of their profession, or the poets and prose writers who came immediately before her, Margery was an accidental author. But she is not an artless one.
We can also trace her legacy, and that of other medieval authors, in the many anonymous and collaborative forms of writing that are familiar to us from social media, blog posts, and podcasts. In striking ways, the Internet reproduces many of the conditions of medieval manuscript culture in which, as we have seen, controlling one’s own authorial persona can be challenging—but entering the conversation, and amplifying the impact of new authorial voices, is much easier.
We are also seeing a resurgence in the type of professional authorship that is supported, not by a publishing house, but through the patronage of content creators on YouTube and TikTok or via platforms like Patreon. This replicates the channels through which medieval authors gained a following, expanding their influence beyond a single commission or court to a wider audience willing to subsidize their work.
Common Questions about How Medieval Authors Gained a Following
A fabliau is a short verse story often featuring a canny trickster, who is often foiled by someone even trickier.
Giovanni Boccaccio is best known for the Decameron—a collection of prose tales about sex, adventure, and trickery.
Christine de Pisan is the author of the Book of the City of Ladies.